Celebrating Nature and Reading

Ashley Wolff wanted to be an author/illustrator her whole life, and today she is — a nationally acclaimed one, at that — but she wasn’t successful overnight. It took a steady supply of the four P’s:

Passion, practice, perseverance, patience.

Wolff, who to date has illustrated over 60 children’s books, including the new “Baby Bear Sees Blue,” which she also wrote, and the popular “Miss Bindergarten” series, will be in Washington Saturday, May 5, to share her experience with the “Four P’s.”

She will give a presentation and book-signing beginning at 10 a.m. to celebrate the grand opening of the library’s outdoor children’s garden.

Diane Lick, president of the Friends of the Library, which is sponsoring Wolff’s visit, said the group wanted to do something special for the new children’s area and a children’s author visit seemed ideal.

“I have always enjoyed listening to authors at conventions and with the years of teaching reading in the Washington School District, I could think of no better way to celebrate children’s literacy than by having them meet an author/illustrator of children’s books,” said Lick.

“Reading a book is like having a movie going on in the brain, and hopefully meeting the person who writes them will help children enjoy the book even more.”

Chris Stuckenschneider, book editor at The Missourian and a member of the Friends, suggested they invite Wolff after seeing a copy of “Baby Bear Sees Blue.” Lick was in complete agreement.

“When she mentioned that (Wolff) was the illustrator of the ‘Miss Bindergarten’ books I immediately said this was the person we needed,” recalled Lick. “Children love these books and would have an immediate connection with her.

“Then I read ‘Baby Bear Sees Blue,’ and I was so taken by the vivid pictures and the simple, yet delightful text that I told Chris she just had to get her to come to Washington. The outdoors theme seems to fit well with how we are extending the children’s section to include the outdoor plaza.

“Baby Bear discovers a whole, bright, new world just as our children can discover a whole new world with the books in the new section of the library that is designed especially for them.”

Wolff, who spoke to The Missourian by phone earlier this month, said her presentation here will be entertaining and informative both for children and adults.

“It will be funny with lots of pictures,” she said.

“There will be a little bit on behind-the-scenes, how ideas come to me, where my characters come from . . . ”

The presentation will include a slide show and drawing demonstration.

Wolff, who travels across the country and occasionally overseas (she recently returned from New Dehli, India, where she was invited to speak to students at the American Embassy School), has given countless presentations at schools, libraries and such. It’s a part of her work that she truly enjoys.

“I love talking to kids,” Wolff commented.

“The icing on the cake is being in a community where my friends and colleagues are teachers, librarians and children.”

Childhood Influences Work

Much of Wolff’s work as an author/illustrator is influenced by her childhood experience growing up in Middlebury, Vt., where she often had a front-row seat to see animals and nature in action.

On her website, www.ashleywolff.com, Wolff writes, “The bedroom I shared with my sister looked into the forest. On the windowsill we lined up birds’ nests and feathers and the skull and bones of small animals that we found in the forest.

“Every spring a pair of robins built their nest on the ledge right outside and, if we leaned out far enough, we could see the babies when they hatched.”

Years later as Wolff was showing her portfolio of illustrations to editors, it was a linoleum block print she had made of a girl in a red coat, kneeling in the snow, feeding the birds that caught an editor’s attention.

The editor suggested Wolff write a story about the girl, which resulted in her first picture book, “A Year of Birds,” published in 1984.

“Since then I have illustrated many books, all of them full of animals, children, color and love,” Wolff notes on her website.

Linoleum Block Prints

Wolff attended The Rhode Island School of Design where she studied many art forms, but she was especially drawn to a technique known as wood block and linoleum block-printing, something her parents actually introduced her to.

“Every year my parents designed and printed their own linoleum block Christmas cards,” said Wolff.

“It’s a very old-fashioned technique. It’s the very first way books were illustrated and printed.”

Wolff had tried her hand at other print methods, but routinely found herself sick from all of the chemicals and fumes.

“I was feeling queasy all of the time,” she said. “Then I went home to Vermont and took a one-month class on wood block prints . . . that’s when I rediscovered it.

“I learned how not to do what most beginners do,” she remarked.

That is, cut out only the image they want shown leaving most of the background to print as black.

“You have to learn to think the other way, to think of it as positive and negative space,” she explained.

Wolff doesn’t work exclusively in wood block and linoleum block-printing.

“It depends on the kind of book I’m doing if it’s the right medium,” she said.

“The ‘Miss Bindergarten’ books don’t lend themselves to it. That would look silly!”

Wolff said her parents, all along, were “super supportive” of her art aspirations.

“They saved a lot of my work and were always giving me materials to use,” she said.

Books Begin With an Image

Wolff said she always loved to write, but it’s harder for her to come up with a good story than to create an illustration. That’s why all of the books she writes begin with an image.

“Then I write a story to go with it,” she said.

Even though she had a love for narration, Wolff said she has always been much happier when someone else was in that role, “rather than coming up with a concept out of the blue.”

Her new book, “Baby Bear Sees Blue,” was triggered by some photos of bears in the woods in autumn, when the colors are all scarlet and amber and she envisioned a title of “Baby Bear Sees Red.”

It was an editor who suggested changing “Red” to “Blue,” she noted.

Wolff said she often uses real-life incidents and personal memories from her childhood to inspire her work.

“Most of the charming details in my books are there because they are real,” she said.

“It’s that old adage — write what you know.”

With a name like Wolff, it’s probably no surprise that she her books are full of animal characters. That, too, is a nod to her childhood, growing up in a country setting surrounded by woods and animals, but it’s also a very traditional storytelling method.

“There is a long tradition of substituting animals for characters in children’s books,” said Wolff, noting children respond well to these characters.

In addition to writing and illustrating her own books, Wolff also works as an illustrator for other authors.

She works every day, although there is not necessarily a set work schedule.

“Right now I’m checking my -mail, and then I’m going to send my sons an Easter card using Baby Bear as a character.

“In the background, I have the current blocks I’m carving for the next book on Baby Bear . . . it’s sort of a three-ring circus going on. I find it hard to concentrate on one thing all day.”

Children’s Garden at Library

As part of the celebration on May 5, library board member Marsha Riggs, who is in the current master gardeners class, will give a short explanation of the vision guiding the design of the children’s garden.

Children’s librarian Ruth McInnis is excited to have this outdoor addition to the newly renovated and expanded library.

“It is being created as a learning garden where children can explore nature among kid-friendly plantings,” she noted. “For example, they are putting in plants to attract butterflies and hummingbirds . . . They are putting steppingstones for children to follow to a child-size bench.”

McInnis is as excited as both Lick and Stuckenschneider to have Wolff be the featured guest for the event.

“Ashley Wolff is the perfect children’s author/illustrator to visit our library,” she remarked. “She is prolific in work, and her books appeal to all ages. We are excited that she will be the first author to visit our renovated facility.”